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Chinese Seniors Take to the Boards

  • Sam Beattie

A group of retired women in Beijing has come together to form an unusual dance group. They compete in talent competitions and they have appeared on national television shows. Sam Beattie reports.

Cheerleading competitions bring images of young athletic dancers to mind. But in a nationally televised competition for university students there is an added attraction to just the university dancers.

A team of women, aged 55 and up, took to the stage to show the youngsters a few dance moves.

The sassy seniors are a big hit with the younger performers. Twenty-two-year-old university student Li Yuehua is amazed at their athleticism.

"I think they are really great dancers. Even though they are older than us, they have just as much energy as we do," said Li Yuehua.

The leader of the dance group, known as the Hip Hop Grandmas, is 70-year-old Wu Yi. She retired at China's mandatory age of 55, but felt bored at home. Seeing hip-hop dancing on TV, she thought it looked like fun and decided to give it a go.

"Those in their 70s just eat a little and watch TV, sit in front of it, say, 'What is this?' They are withering, and walk like this. But you can see I am different. I dance every day. Life is about exercise. It makes me not only healthy, but gives me a flexible body and I do not suffer from sickness," she said.

Wu Yi taught her self to dance, watching videos from a variety of performers ranging from 1980s pop icon Michael Jackson to 2007 Grammy Award winning rap artist 50-Cent.

Wu says she cant learn it all, but says she constantly challenges herself and learns from others, trying to imitate their movements and absorb their style.

She started dancing with friends who were looking for ways to keep fit, but also try something new.

Constantly pushing themselves to try new things, after a few months of dancing the retired ladies took part in their first TV talent show.

A hit with the audience, the hip grandmas since appeared on numerous television shows, from talents quests to New Year's Eve celebrations and are in demand to appear on commercials.

Success in these competitions has attracted widespread media attention and the dance group is growing in size. Grandmothers from all over Beijing are now signing up to learn how to dance hip-hop.

Among those signing up to join the twice-weekly class is 55-year-old Shan Yi. She says she has come to recapture her youth.

"This really helps bring back the feeling of being young," she said. "Maybe in daily life this feeling is gradually fading away. Now, we gather here to try and find it again."

Others, like 66-year-old Liu Fang, say it is more exciting than traditional Chinese exercise, such as the slow and tranquil martial art known as Tai Chi. She says dancing to hip hop music gives her a better work out.

"Hip hop has strong rhythms," she said. "Its not like Tai Chi. Although it is a treasure of China, I don't like it, because the movement is too slow. This has vigor."

All of these women have lived through immense change in China. Many were in their 20s when the cultural revolution swept through China - time when individualism was frowned upon and Western ideas shunned.

With times changing quickly in China, these hip-hop grandmas refuse to be left behind.